Craig Simpson is now a broadcaster, but he experienced Battle of Alberta as a gamer


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No one has the unique perspective of Craig Simpson — once a player, now a voice — as he goes back and forth between today and yesterday to recount what an Alberta playoff battle three decades after the last means for that province.

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Simpson was on the ice for the Edmonton Oilers in the Saddledome on that wild and beautiful Tuesday, April 16, 1991, when teammate Esa Tikkanen rammed that dagger into the heart of the Calgary Flames in Game 7 of overtime.

Wednesday night Simpson will be back in this building but in the booth as a TV colorman with the esteemed Chris Cuthbert for Hockey Night in Canada.

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It has been 31 years and a month since the Oilers last saw the Calgary Flames when Simpson wore the Oilers logo and number 18.

Simpson, then just 24, had a front row seat as Tikkanen had a game for the ages with his three goals in just three shots at Mike Vernon, including the OT winner seven minutes later when his hopeful shot of the ties rebounded Calgary defenseman Frank Musil and past Vernon to end the fifth playoff meeting between the clubs. There have been four Oilers wins and the 1986 loss when Steve Smith benched one of Grant Fuhr’s legs if you keep the score.

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“How do I remember this series? It was the intensity, the importance of playing a first round against a strong opponent as the defending Stanley Cup champion,” Simpson said. “It was the most difficult, intense and physical series I’ve ever played in and I think the guys involved felt the same way. It has taken it to such a high level because of the quality of the teams.”

Simpson is a history buff.

“You think of the historic battle of Alberta (playoffs) from 1983 to 1991, these two teams were in the Stanley Cup finals every year. That’s what made the Battle of Alberta so exciting for fans in both cities. They had battle-hardened Stanley Cup teams. The Oilers and Calgary lost in ’86 and won in ’89,” he said.

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“This year you have a 111-point team (Calgary) against a 104-point team. They have two 100 point players on each team (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl here and Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk there). High-quality individual players and two very good teams. A Canadian team will once again reach the Conference Finals. When I’m on one of those teams, I say, “Okay, give it to me,” Simpson said.

“This is great for the two cities in Alberta, great for Canada.”

Of course, any mention of Tikkanen brings a big smile from Oilers fans and a big scowl from Flames fans. Like Tkachuk today. They’re playing the same annoying good game, and both players would give Woody Woodpecker a headache with their chatter.

The Oilers could probably use Tikky’s sloppy grin and brand of disruption and stamina today in this second round to counter some of Tkachuk’s friction and diction, to be honest, but at 57 and at home in Finland his skating legs went and his exploits him for a long time.

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But back to April 16, 1991, he was all over the sheet. His harmless 55-foot shot in the closing minutes of the first period somehow got past a very good Vernon to level Calgary’s 3-0 lead after goals from Theo Fleury and Joe Nieuwendyk on the power play and another from Robert Reichel.

“You go back to Game 6 where Fleury got that pass from (Mark) Messier and scored in overtime and went to his theater. Then Fleury scored late in the first period of Game 7 and got back on his knees behind our net,” Simpson said.

“Tikky got a bad goal from Vernon with about two and a half minutes left. From our bench, our belief was, ‘Okay, we’ve got it now. That gave us the hope and the drive.” Those kinds of antics come back to you and they did it for Fleury. It ended up costing them although it was a long road to get there as Tikky scored in extra time.”

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Simpson, like everyone, has wished for another Battle of Alberta.

“Yeah, it’s kind of sad that it took so long because the fans wanted to see it. Over the years, the two teams (simultaneously) have not had the quality of these. That’s what excites me about being in the dressing room now,” Simpson said.

Tikkanen will go down with Simpson as a great oiler who should be honored in a wall of fame at Ford Hall whenever the team comes around. Tikkanen was a Flames’ Slayer with his exploits in Game 7.

“I was going to make a pass to Petr (Klima) who was open but I, um, changed my mind,” said Tikkanen, who went to the World Cup the next day to play for Finland if the Oilers lost. “They said they had a plane ticket and a place for me on their team, but I didn’t want to think about it… I would be cheating on my teammates.”

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The 2002 version of Battle of Alberta might not have the fury of the 1991 series, which saw fights brewing in the warm-ups if someone deviated from their side of center to get a loose puck because it was a different time is. But it never hurts to look back.

At a fan Q&A session at the Hall of Fame last November, Kevin Lowe said he hates playing Tim Hunter, who was his nemesis in the last game against Lowe in 1991.

“He was in my kitchen. He hit me where there was no padding, between the elbow and the cuff of the glove. “What was I up to? Fight him?” said Lowe.

No, but we expect the Mittens to fall in 2022.

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